The Necessity of Doubt

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” – John 20:24-25

Thank God for Thomas. He’s my hero.

They say that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. I have come to see doubt, not as an impediment to faith, but as an essential ingredient of it.

What does doubt give me? Doubt rescues me from brittle certainty. I call it brittle, because it cannot cope with any disagreement, or else it shatters. It doesn’t believe so much because it is convinced, but because it is afraid of the alternative. What if that isn’t true is the question of nightmares for this kind of belief. Doubt is not afraid, or at least, not as afraid.

Doubt is a process of honest reckoning with our lives. We weigh up our experiences against our faith-based expectations and we measure the gap. Does that gap mean we need to recalibrate what we hold to? Perhaps, or it may simply mean that we’re going to note the dissonance and live with it for a while.

Doubt invites me into a place of humility. Rigid certainty cannot help but slip into arrogance, however well-meaning we are. Doubt, on the other hand, begins with the premise that ‘I could be wrong about this.’ Therefore, we have already opened ourselves to the possibility that we may need to change, or rearrange, how we think or behave or believe.

This humility that doubt gifts me means I can receive other people as gifts as well, especially when they are different from me, and don’t see the world as I do. I can be curious rather than threatened, I can be interested in their thoughts and perspectives.

This doubt doesn’t mean that I am unstable in what I believe. I can be mindful of my doubt, but I recognise it as a universal human reality, not something that belongs exclusively to those with a faith perspective. Do I believe Jesus rose from the dead? Yes, at least, on most days. Can I prove it? No.

My belief that Jesus rose means that death does not have the final word. And I want that to be true. But I can’t make it true, no matter how intensely I want it to be. But I can live as if it were true, in spite of the inherent doubts that surround my conviction. And I think that is the essence of faith. Living as if something were true without having the evidence to back it up.

So I will live as if everyone I met is made by God out of love, and they bear God’s image uniquely. I will live as if God is present and active in the world by the Holy Spirit, and available to help. I will live as if God has healing purposes for the world, not just those who turn up at church. I cannot prove any of these things. They make sense of some of the things that I experience, but at the same time they are denied by many others. But I have chosen to live with that dissonance. Because with those convictions held, hand in hand with my doubts, I can live creatively, generously and fearlessly (as much as I’m able). These beliefs make me more able. And my doubts keep my beliefs from holding me hostage to a fixed worldview that has no room for fresh insights or transformation.

And I think this dance: belief held alongside doubt, experience not denied, but also not surrendered to as the sole yardstick of truth, this dance is what I think faith is. We are negotiating with our reality – saying, yes I know the world seems cruel and scary and heading for hell in a hand basket, and I’m going to start by taking that seriously. But I am going to draw on other stories alongside that reality to inform how I live, stories that don’t come true every day, but they have come true from time to time, and that’s enough to keep holding out that today might be one of those times.

I could be wrong about all of this. And I don’t mind. And I’m not afraid. It’s a good way to live regardless.

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